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Lessons Learned from a Young Bassoonist

A college roommate's son Michael attends one of the best conservatories of music, getting a master's degree in the bassoon. He was asked during the course of typical holiday party conversation why he chose the bassoon, a seemingly obscure musical instrument.


His explanation offered an intriguing glimpse into what makes for successful career decisions.

"When I was ten, I told my music teacher I'd like to be a professional musician, playing classical music as part of a symphony orchestra. I asked her about my prospects as a pianist.

"'Sure', she replied, 'though I might choose a different instrument if I wanted the best shot at a career in music.'

"'What would you recommend?', I asked. She didn't hesitate and offered, 'The oboe or bassoon, possibly the harp.'"

Another partygoer chimed in, "Really? You based your college major and career hopes on the recommendations of this teacher? One would think there are many more opportunities as a pianist than a bassoonist, or in this day and age, for that matter, studying the guitar."

This is where the conversation started to get really interesting.

"Mmm...," the young bassoonist began, "Let's start with the guitar. There are so many kids who study the guitar, yet there is almost no market demand for guitar players. It's nearly impossible to get a job even as a teacher. Your only option if you want to play for a living is to start your own band hope you make it big. You'd have a better shot at making a living if you took up basketball with the goal of playing in the NBA.

"Now piano is a little better, because while there are many students who study the piano, some of their parents hire private piano teachers to give them lessons, creating something of a job market. So piano is a good choice as long as you are inclined to teach kids, many of whom would rather not be at a piano lesson in the first place.

"Piano and for that matter violin are bad choices, however, if you want to play professionally at the highest levels. You see there are so many truly gifted musicians who play these instruments, with relatively few job openings at symphony orchestras to accommodate them. It may not be as unrealistic as the NBA; it's more like the NFL since there are more players on each team. Still, it's pretty hard to get drafted by an NFL team.

"You see, when you consider the instruments that make up a symphony, the ones that hardly anyone studies are the oboe, the harp and the bassoon. I didn't see myself as a harp player, and tried the oboe. I just preferred the bassoon."

A new arrival at the conversation inquired, "Ten years later, are you now looking for opportunities as part of a symphony orchestra?"

"Not really," Mike replied. "Junior year I elected to focus on a style of playing the bassoon that doesn't blend well with the rest of a symphony orchestra."

Someone quickly pointed out the evident contradiction from his earlier statements, "Doesn't that negate your entire plan?"

"I'd rather be a soloist." Mike had obviously thought through his decision. "In terms of the major composers throughout history, many of them didn't write any solo pieces for the bassoon, and most of those who did wrote only one. Vivaldi, on the other hand, wrote 39 bassoon concertos. 39 beautiful works. My style of playing is designed for these and similar pieces. I can play them all."

"Have you been invited to play any of these pieces for any symphonies yet?"

"Well, I've been invited to play so far at over a dozen smaller organizations, chamber music and the like. My first symphony invitation, however, just came in."

"Well, you must be very talented."

"Sure," he replied. "But am I to the bassoon what Itzhak Perlman is to the violin? Certainly not, at least not yet. Consider that the wiki page for famous contemporary classical violinists: It is 250 names long. There isn't even a page dedicated to contemporary bassoonists. My point is that with the equivalent level of talent as a violinist, I might struggle to land any gigs whatsoever. There are too many truly talented violinists. The bassoon can take me quickly to where I want to be in terms of a career as a musician."

Lessons Learned

Mike is a walking case study in designing a strategy for career success:

  1. Have a passion for your chosen field
  2. Plan to work hard to achieve greatness
  3. In a competitive marketplace, focus on developing skills that are in short supply
  4. Continually refine your focus to as you observe opportunities for advancement
  5. Dream big dreams!
Mike demonstrates that even in a world of starving artists, a smart strategy can still result in bountiful opportunity. We wish him well.


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